March 01, 2004

 

 'A critical asset' - March 1, 2004

 
'A critical asset'
AVMA president encourages
support for upgrades at Plum Island


After 50 years of service as the only facility in North America where foot-and-mouth disease research can be done, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center needs a new facility, officials from the Department of Homeland Security have determined. The DHS took over the management of Plum Island in June 2003. Previously, the Department of Agriculture managed the facility at Plum Island.

Several representatives from the AVMA toured the facility this past Dec. 11. During the visit, the representatives learned more about the role Plum Island will play in the DHS mission. Dr. Elizabeth A. Lautner, the newly appointed director of Plum Island, and Col. Gerald W. Parker, a veterinarian and the director of the National Biodefense Analysis and Counter Measures Center of the DHS, accompanied the AVMA group on the tour. The AVMA was represented by Dr. Jack O. Walther, AVMA president; Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, AVMA president-elect; Dr. Lyle P. Vogel, director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division; Dr. Michael Chaddock, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division; and Bridget M. Kuehn, JAVMA News reporter.

"The AVMA and the veterinary profession need to support legislation to increase funding for upgrades at Plum Island, as well as for upgrades at the laboratories in Ames, Iowa," Dr. Walther said. "What has happened with bovine spongiform encephalopathy since our visit illustrates the importance of having the most up-to-date facilities to develop defenses to foreign animal diseases."

The management of Plum Island was shifted from the USDA to the DHS as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the DHS to combat domestic terrorism. Since taking charge of the facility, the DHS has worked with the USDA—whose employees continue to conduct research at Plum Island and provide diagnostic services for suspected cases of foreign animal disease—to develop a plan to modernize the facility.

Colonel Parker said that the DHS takes the threat of a terrorist attack against the country's agriculture system very seriously and is committed to its role as steward of the facility at Plum Island.

"Plum Island is a critical asset to the nation," Col. Parker said. "The DHS has taken the (the responsibility of managing the facility) very seriously."



The USDA opened the laboratory facility in 1954 in response to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Canada and Mexico. As an added security measure, it is located on an 840-acre island about 1.5 miles northeast of Orient Point, N.Y., and 12 miles southwest of New London, Conn.

Despite major renovations in the 1960s and 1970s, the facility is reaching the end of its useful life, according to Col. Parker. A 2001 report commissioned by the USDA found that it would be more cost-effective to build a new facility than remodel the old facility, and the report estimated the cost at more than $200 million.

Colonel Parker said the DHS and the USDA are working together to develop comprehensive plans to protect the nation against the intentional or accidental introduction of a foreign animal disease, and that the facilities at Plum Island are an important component of that plan.

Besides being the only facility in the United States where researchers are allowed to work with the live FMD virus—which is necessary to diagnose a suspected case—Plum Island houses an FMD vaccine bank. Plum Island scientists also play a vital role in rapidly diagnosing other foreign animal diseases, such as vesicular stomatitis and classical swine fever.

"Most of the milestones in FMD research came out of Plum Island," said Dr. Luis L. Rodriguez, the leader of the FMD research unit at Plum Island.

Dr. Rodriguez recently demonstrated the importance of Plum Island's FMD research capabilities by testing whether FMD virus could be passed through pasteurized milk—practical information that could be used to control the spread of the disease. The study involved infecting cows with FMD virus and testing to determine whether their pasteurized milk could infect other cows—he found that it can.

Opportunities and challenges
Colonel Parker said that the new partnership between the USDA and DHS provides a lot of new opportunities, but comes with its share of challenges.

One of the biggest challenges is bridging the cultural gap between the researchers and diagnosticians at the USDA and the intelligence community at DHS, he said.

Managing the aging facilities—from the ferries that transport employees to and from the island, to the outdated laboratories and the historical fort and lighthouse on the island—also poses many challenges.

Security has been a primary concern at the facility in the wake of Sept. 11 and a strike by Plum Island's maintenance workers in 2002. The General Accounting Office released a report on the need to improve security at Plum Island in September 2003. The report found that, while security has improved at the facility, more measures are necessary to prevent breaches.

A new maintenance contractor has since been hired and many new procedure-based security measures have been put in place, according to Col. Parker. Because of the age of the facility, however, it is impossible to install some of the high-tech security features that are built into newer facilities. If a new facility were built at the island, state-of-the-art security features could be incorporated.

"We need a safe and secure facility to do cutting-edge research that will protect the United States from outbreaks of high-consequence foreign animal diseases," Col. Parker said.


– Bridget M. Kuehn